France: Loire

The Loire valley is the spiritual home of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
We weren’t expecting our first trip to the Loire 15 years ago to be such a revelation. We found growers, many quite young, less shackled by tradition, more willing to experiment and, unusually for France, we found growers who had no previous background in wine. The very long valley is dripping with biodynamic influence. Biodynamism; organic viticulture taken to the extreme, ruled by the lunar calendar – man, moon and earth in perfect harmony. Those that weren’t “Bio” or “Demeter” were often “Lutte Raisonee” or “Lutte Integree”, a half-way system in which vines are only treated after “rigorous observation” and only if absolutely necessary.
Repeated visits are invariably a joy – The Anjou in particular.

Chateau Pierre-Bise (Beaulieu-sur-Layon)

Joelle Papin-Chevalier and her son Rene make benchmark Anjou in Beaulieu-sur-Layon, west of Angers. They make three sensational Savennieres (certainly one of the Loire’s finest appellations for Chenin Blanc). In red they make Anjou Villages from two different soils; “Spilite” is grown on volcanic soil; Clos de Coulaine (part of the famous Savennieres vineyard) is on silty-sandy soil over sandstone and schist. The grape is Cabernet Franc. Their wines age magnificently. We recently had a 1995 of their Clos de Coulaine and a 1999 of Spilite. Both were still fresh with plenty of life ahead of them. If you can bear to hide a couple of bottles away for 10-20 years, you won’t be disappointed. Or just drink them now – in which case it might be worth putting them in a decanter for an hour before drinking.
We should just mention their sweet wines – they are on the Layon, after all! The Layon is a tributary of the Loire which traps moisture and mist in autumn – a breeding ground for botrytis; the noble rot. In the right hands (the Papin-Chevaliers for example), late-harvested, botrytised Chenin Blanc makes magical sweet wines.

Clos des Quarterons (St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil) BIODYNAMIC

We are big fans of Loire Cabernet Franc. Underrated, full of character and extremely ageworthy. We highly recommend a visit to RSJ restaurant near Waterloo to try some of their Chinons from the 1980s and 1990s. Always looking, always working, we came across our first bottle of Amirault-Grosbois in the marvellous cheese shop owned by Le Channel in Calais. Our research bottle was plush and fleshy, yet with that fantastic slight sternness we always look for in Loire Cab Franc. We simply had to make a diversion on our recent trip to Bordeaux via St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil in the Loire valley to track down whoever was responsible.
About 5 years ago Xavier Amirault returned from a long stint in New York to re-enter the family winery with his older brother Thierry. They make Cremant de Loire, Anjou Blanc and various bottlings of St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil.
Cremant de Loire is the sparkling wine of the region and is usually 100% Chenin Blanc. Xavier’s is different and made from 60% Chenin Blanc, 25% Chardonnay and (here’s the twist) 15% Cabernet Franc, which provides the drier finish. Their Anjou Blanc is called Pineau de la Loire which is the old name for Chenin Blanc. There is nothing old about theirs – grown on gravelly soil, it is ripe, deep and expressive. The Cab Francs are wonderful. Les Graipins is from small parcels on gravel and chalk, sweaty, leafy and with that hint of lead pencil. Very grown-up. Les Mullaudieres is the one which brought us to their door. Expressive and fleshy with supple, present tannins. Finally the Vieilles Vignes from 40 year-old vines. Deep, silky and present.
Organic from 2011 and Demeter (biodynamic) from 2013.

Domaine du Bouchot (Pouilly-sur-Loire) BIODYNAMIC

We were methodically following leads around Pouilly-sur-Loire. Some dead ends, some were out of town but keen, another just went to the fax line. While we were driving around trying to locate another grower we had been tipped about, we saw an intriguing sign at the end of a lane. Domaine du Bouchot, AB organic. So we phoned them. Can we come and see you? When would you like to come? In 5 minutes? OK.
Rachel and Pascal Kerbiquet started their winery 28 years ago. They were first in the area to go organic. That was in the mid 1990s. Since 2012 they have gone one step further and are now biodynamic. They make very stylish Pouilly-Fume, the embodiment of Sauvignon Blanc in three different bottlings. Their classic Cuvee is their calling card. Next one up is called “Regain”, a particular vineyard which they revived in 1997 using herbs and grasses. Finally “Prestige”, which unsurprisingly is their top-of-the-range bottling. A special selection of grapes, 40 hours of maceration and extended lees contact.
We came back the next day to cram what little space was left in the van with their wines.

Didier Raimbault (Sancerre)

Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, at the eastern end of the Loire valley, are the neighbouring spiritual homes of Sauvignon Blanc. Sancerre is on the Left Bank of the river, Pouilly-sur-Loire on the Right. Sancerre sits on a chalk formation that runs north through Chablis and Champagne up to the white cliffs of Dover to the North Downs in Surrey, England.
Raimbaults have made wine here since the 1600s and today there are multiple Raimbaults dotted around the various wine-growing villages to the east of the town of Sancerre.
Didier and Isabelle Raimbault live in the hamlet of Chaudenay between Verdigny and Sury-en-Vaux. Didier’s father Roger had built up the vineyards from 2 hectares in 1960 to 7.5 in 1995. Didier took over in 1996 and thanks, in part, to an uncle who was retiring and wanted to dispose of 6.5 hectares, has built up the family holdings to 18 hectares on two different types of soil; Caillottes (gravel and marl) and Terres Blanches (chalk).
They make three excellent Sancerre whites from their two soil types. Their basic Sancerre is a blend of the two soils. Early bottlings are 70/30 Caillottes/Terres Blanches, later ones 50/50. Both bottlings are direct and expressive, lean and clear.
The Vieilles Vignes comes from 45-50 year-old vines on the Terres Blanches soil and spends 12-18 months on the fine lees for added texture. It may sometimes seem more restrained when first opened but lime and herbal notes soon emerge in the nose, also depth and complexity in the mouth.
Coteline is a limited bottling (2,000 bottles annually) which comes from a steep, south-facing, 1 hectare parcel called “Cotelin”. 65% tank/35% oak.

Valery Renaudat (Reuilly)

Sauvignon Blanc’s spiritual home is the eastern end of Loire Valley, which one can forget is less than an hour from Chablis.
He may seem shy and retiring but 40 year-old Valery Renaudat has a fiery past. In 1999, when he was 25, he had a massive blow-out with his father, bought a few of his own vines and built his own cellar in Reuilly. Over the last 15 years he has grown his vineyards from 2.5 to 22 hectares, 2/3 in Reuilly, 1/3 in Quincy. With the passage of time he has made-up with his father and stored his wine at his dad’s place while his new cellar was being built. He has now moved into his shiny new “chai”(cellar) at the entrance to the village and, although he is surrounded by sparkling new stainless steel tanks, he has still hung onto a couple of his lucky old fibreglass tanks that he started with.
Like the nearby village of Sancerre, Reuilly is overwhelmingly about zingy, grassy Sauvignon Blancs. We find Valery’s Sauvignon Blancs have a core of chalky minerality that keeps them fresh and lean, zizzy, zesty and evocative of running spring water, lime blossom and freshly cut grass.

Pascal and Beatrice Lambert – Domaine les Chesnaies (Cravant-les-Coteaux) BIODYNAMIC

Pascal’s father was a vigneron, but there were seven children and the family Domaine ended up in one of his brother’s hands so he started up on his own in 1987. He’s quite intense and determined – something you imagine confirmed in the eyes of his wife, Beatrice. We are big fans of their Chinons – unexpectedly lush Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. When we visited last, we caught Pascal dynamising rainwater for one of his biodynamic preparations – a memory etched in our minds. It was a process involving stirring, one way then the other, for 45 minutes. Does it make a difference? We think so.

Michel Bedouet (Le Pallet)

The draughty flat land near Nantes, close to the mouth of the Loire on France’s Atlantic coast is the home of Muscadet – possibly France’s crispest white wine. Michel Bedouet is one of a posse of small, artisanal growers rebuilding the reputation for quality in the region. We all love Michel’s ridiculously affordable “Le Convivial”, essentially a de-classified Muscadet. In some years it’s a blend of Folle Blanche and Melon de Bourgogne and, more recently, a crisp Chardonnay – either way, utterly lean, wonderfully clean and refreshing. White flowers in the nose, briney in the mouth, crisp, dry and punching way above its weight. He also makes a classic Muscadet sur Lie which we often buy with a couple of years’ bottle age. Who says Muscadet doesn’t age?

Jo Pithon (Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay) ORGANIC

The Layon, a tributary of the Loire, is not much more than a stream. It’s a steep, tightly-winding river and tends to attract mist and fog in autumn – perfect conditions for botrytis, the “noble rot” which creates the world’s most sought-after dessert wines. Larger than life, jovial, bear-like, bushy sideburn-ed Jo Pithon is famous for his dessert wines made from Chenin Blanc affected by the noble rot. Many believe Chenin to be France’s finest white wine grape. You can sometimes find hints of marmalade, coconuts, dried pineapple and even truffle in the nose. The highly-strung Chenin acidity stops the wine from ever being cloying, also giving it long ageing potential. The Bonnes Blanches 2004 is dizzily complex and intense.
Jo has recently branched out and has also been making some serious dry Chenin Blanc under the Anjou appellation.

Stephane Orieux – Domaine de la Bregeonnette (Vallet) ORGANIC

Modern Muscadet has come a long way since the 1980’s, no longer mean and green but still a perfect choice for seafood and simple fish dishes. Stephane Orieux’s organic wines are ample and broad. The vines are grown on Schiste and Granite soils and the wine is aged on its lees with regular stirring, giving it a layered and broad feel in the mouth. Normal practice elsewhere, forbidden for Muscadet, it’s almost as if he has allowed some malolactic fermentation to take place. That can’t be – c’est interdit! Well, whatever he’s doing, we like it; complex, flavourful Muscadet.